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While the “Mad Men” era passed more than half a century ago, much of the advertising industry seems to be plagued by as much sexism and discrimination as ever. This applies both to the way women are depicted in ads and to the cultures and structures in place within agencies.
These problems are intertwined, and they reached a crescendo in March 2016, when a lawsuit was filed against a prominent advertising CEO that detailed incidents in which he allegedly made racist and sexist slurs.
The filing touched “a raw nerve in adland,” according to Advertising Week. Two weeks later, the American Association of Advertising Agencies (the 4 A’s) hosted its flagship conference, Transformation. Industry executives from throughout the U.S. looked to the 4 A’s for direction on how to move forward.
As Advertising Age reported in another article, “ ‘Will she or won’t she?’ was the question of the morning. … Attendees wondered whether the 4A’s President-CEO Nancy Hill would use her opening remarks to address the gender and diversity issues raised by the lawsuit.”
It turned out that she delivered a rallying cry: “Real change has to start with you, at the top,” she said. “If you’re the CEO, you are the chief diversity officer. Look at salaries. Is there a gap? If there is, fix it. Men, you must be part of the conversation: You have to start the conversation.”
The 4 A’s wanted to leverage this top-of-mind interest to keep the gender equality conversation front and center, to hold a mirror up to agencies regarding female and diverse experiences and to offer content and ideas that advance the careers of female and diverse agency professionals.
Following Nancy’s speech and the flurry of interviews, questions and conversations afterwards, the organization, working with Havas PR North America, launched a multiplatform gender equality and diversity initiative comprised of events, webinars, intimate salons, content development and media relations.
The idea at the core of the initiative was to focus the highly charged conversation on the facts (which confirmed that discrimination and sexism are alive and well in advertising) and create an industry wide call to action, rather than be defensive or dismissive about the state of the industry.
With Nancy’s speech as the jumping-off point, Havas PR pitched her as a champion for gender equality and diversity in advertising, sharing her opening remarks and arranging dozens of interviews for her on the topic.
In the weeks that followed, an Adweek op-ed penned by the 4 A’s announced the initiative and provided ways for execs to take action. In May, they coordinated a groundbreaking piece on the front page of The New York Times’ Business section called “For Women in Advertising, It’s Still a ‘Mad Men’ World.” The article highlighted a handful of the female executives who are making a difference in the industry, including Nancy.
Two comprehensive surveys were commissioned: one examined experiences in the industry as they relate to equal opportunities for advancement and sexual harassment. The second survey looked at how women are portrayed in ads and the impact on current and future generations of women. Over the summer, they teased the survey results in a Campaign op-ed and landed the findings on AdAge.com, MediaPost and The Wall Street Journal.
Because of the 4 A’s firm position on gender equality in the industry, the Transformation 2016 conference received an unprecedented amount of media coverage: From March 20-28, it was included in 96 articles, garnering more than 412 million impressions. One-third of that coverage was about gender and diversity, including pieces in The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Adweek, The New York Times, New York Post and AdAge.com.
Both Nancy’s Adweek op-ed (earning more than 6.5 million impressions) and the New York Times piece (earning 94 million media impressions) furthered the dialogue about the need for a more diverse workforce to keep propelling the advertising industry forward.
The release of the surveys further empowered agency executives to acknowledge and take on gender equality, and also informed insights and strategies on how agencies can evolve the way they communicate to consumers, effectively selling their brands without selling sex.
The tone of the discussion is no longer about an aging industry defending itself against alleged sexism and discrimination; rather, it has become the much-needed catalyst to inspire change.
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